Catherine Ann Cullen
Catherine Ann Cullen is the inaugural Poet in Residence at Poetry Ireland and a prize-winning poet, songwriter and children’s writer. She was awarded a Kavanagh Fellowship in 2018. Her poem ‘Triskele’ was shortlisted for Irish Poem of the Year 2020. She has published three collections including The Other Now: New and Selected Poems (Dedalus 2016) and three children’s books including a reimagining of a Latvian book, All Better! (Little Island 2019). Her fourth collection, A Lozenge of Yellow Glass, is due from Dedalus in 2022. She has a PhD in Creative Writing and is a scholar of broadside ballads.
The Catherine Ann Cullen Interview
For budding poets, learning from poets like Catherine Ann Cullen is crucial. We are very grateful to Catherine Ann for being so generous with her time.
Anita: Please tell us a little about your poetry journey; the start and how you transitioned to becoming a published, well-established poet.
Catherine Ann Cullen: “I wrote poetry compulsively as a child and had my first poems and some prose published in The Sunday Press when I was eight. This happened by chance when I visited a friend’s house with my school bag, as usual, full of writing. A journalist, Kevin Marron, was visiting too. I think he was stuck for an idea for his column that week, and was amused by my work, which included lots of poems, a film review and an essay on the recent engagement of my teacher, in which I explained the idea of marriage and engagement for the uninitiated. It was unintentionally hilarious, and Marron decided to give his column over to me as guest writer. I have him to thank for my first taste of the magic of print. Sadly, he was one of nine people who died when their plane crashed on the south-east coast of England in November 1984.
I had some poetry published when I was a student at Trinity College Dublin, but I lost confidence in my work and didn’t publish anything for about ten years. I did continue to write a bit, especially for family. I was working as a radio producer in RTÉ and sprinkled some of my poetry into documentaries. One evening I met Rossa Ó Snodaigh of the wonderful group Kila, who was running a poetry and music evening in Dublin. He asked me if I would read some time and, thinking this reassuringly vague, I said I would. He took my phone number. When I got home that night the phone was ringing, It was Rossa, who wanted to check the spelling of my name “for the poster”. I nearly fainted with shock, but Rossa was persuasive. The following week, I was trembling on the little stage of Odessa, giving the worst reading of my life. I went back to Trinity to do a Creative Writing M. Phil soon after.
Anita: What was the key-step to publication?
Catherine Ann Cullen: I started to enter poetry competitions while I was doing my masters, and had some success being shortlisted and coming second in a few. I was runner-up in a contest in Killarney which was run by Doghouse Books, and their editor Noel King approached me a few months later to ask if I’d like to publish a collection with them. Of course I would! They published my first two collections, A Bone in My Throat (2007) and Strange Familiar (2013). The second was the last book they published before they folded. I’ve been very lucky because a year or two later, Dedalus Press got in touch and asked if they could republish the best of the Doghouse poems with some new poems. The Other Now: New and Selected Poems (Dedalus 2016) was born. So I have the odd distinction of never having looked for a poetry publisher. I’ve also written three children’s books with a more traditional publishing route!
Anita: What makes a poem publishable?
Catherine Ann Cullen: For me, a fresh perspective, the perfect choice of words, having something to say and saying it with clarity and sensitivity. However, I am not a publisher!
Anita: What are today’s poetry publishers looking for?
Catherine Ann Cullen: There are as many answers to this question as there are publishers, but I think a distinct voice is always appealing. For a collection, they are looking for the ability to sustain that voice, not just a few good poems but a sense that the writer knows what they are doing and can adhere to a high standard. An awareness of the audience for the poems is important too, as well as a reasonable knowledge of what is currently being published by other poets.
Anita: What resources can help budding poets?
Catherine Ann Cullen: Find poets that you admire and read them. Join a writing group, if possible a poetry writing group, and submit your work to your peers for their critiques and suggestions. You don’t have to take all of these on board, but you will likely find one or two people whose judgement you trust and who are interested in making your work better. Send poems out to magazines, online or print – after you have read what they are publishing. Consider writing to Poetry Prompts: since lockdown, I’ve published one for adults and one for children on Twitter and Facebook every week (originally every day, but after 200 I changed to weekly!) There’s a great community of poets who post their poems on Twitter in response. Join us! You’ll find me on Twitter @tarryathome.
Anita: Do you advise people to work with mentors or hire an agent?
Catherine Ann Cullen: Mentors can be very helpful, look out for schemes run by writing organisations that can get you mentoring sessions for free, or enrol in a series of workshops with a well-established writer. Agents are unusual in the poetry community – in general, we don’t make enough money for them!
Anita: How can people improve their poems?
Catherine Ann Cullen: Pare them back. Cut out the preamble and the moral. Give us the essence. Is every word the right word? Rewrite, rewrite. Short is good.
Anita: What is your process for writing a poem?
Catherine Ann Cullen: It depends on the poem. Some are in my head for a while before I get them on paper. I often have an idea I want to write about, and eventually get down to it. I let it flow first, with all the angles that have been building up in my mind, and then I go back and put shape on it. I revise constantly, change a word here or there, delete lines.
Anita: What is your top piece of advice?
Catherine Ann Cullen: Writing can be therapeutic, but that is not enough if you want to write poetry that will touch readers and publishers. You have to take it further than therapy, into shaping your feelings and thoughts, your observations and fears, into something that is clear and resonant.